The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 26, 2014

Ex-Athens police officer says he was wrongly fired after reporting alleged corruption

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— Here is the text of the lawsuit filed March 14 in federal District Court in Alabama by former Athens Police Officer Jason White. He claims he was wrongly fired in 2012 for reporting alleged corruption within the police department. Among other things, he alleges that Capt. Tracy Harrison and another officer used a police vehicle to pull over a mail truck so Harrison could intercept, retrieve and destroy documents about a DUI arrest (involving another man) before it arrived at the Alabama Department of Public Safety:

 

U.S. DISTRICT COURT N.D. OF ALABAMA

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA

NORTHEASTERN DIVISION

Case 5:14-cv-00445-MHH Document 1 filed 4:10 p.m. 3/13/14

JASON A. WHITE

Plaintiff v. Civil Action No.: ____________ CITY OF ATHENS, a municipal corporation; WILLIAM R. MARKS, Mayor of City of Athens, in both his individual and official capacities; FLOYD JOHNSON, Chief of the Athens Police Department, in both his individual and official capacities; TRACY HARRISON, an individual; REED WAYNE HARPER, an individual; and TREVOR HARRIS, an individual; Defendants.

COMPLAINT

COMES NOW the Plaintiff, Jason A. White, by and through his attorneys of record, and for his Complaint against Defendants, City of Athens, Mayor William R. Marks, Floyd Johnson, Tracy Harrison, Reed Wayne Harper, and Trevor Harris, states as follows:

NATURE OF THE CASE

1. This is a lawsuit brought by the Plaintiff, Jason A. White, who has been affected by the actions of defendants as alleged in the claims set forth below, seeking permanent relief from unlawful retaliatory practices that violated plaintiff’s civil and Constitutional rights. The practices committed by Defendants violate the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983").

JURISDICTION AND VENUE

2. This Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this cause of action

pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, 1367, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 2000e.

3. The Defendants are located and/or doing business within this judicial district and division. This action is brought within the judicial district wherein the unlawful employment practices were committed, making venue proper under 28

U.S.C. § 1391.

PARTIES

4. Plaintiff, Jason A. White (“Plaintiff” or “White”), is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

5. Defendant City of Athens (“Athens” or “the City”) is an Alabama municipality located and/or doing business within this judicial district and division.

6. Defendant William R. Marks (“Marks”) is the Mayor of the City of Athens, and is sued in both his official and individual capacities. Defendant Marks is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

7. Defendant Floyd Johnson (“Johnson” or “Chief Johnson”) is the Chief of the Athens Police Department, and is sued in both his official and individual capacities. Defendant Johnson is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

8. Defendant Tracy Harrison (“Harrison” or “Captain Harrison”) is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

Defendant Reed Wayne Harper (“Harper” or “Chief Harper”) is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

10. Defendant Trevor Harris (“Harris” or “Lt. Harris”) is an adult resident of the state of Alabama and of this judicial district and division.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

A. Plaintiff’s Employment History with the City of Athens

11. In April of 1999, Defendant City of Athens hired Plaintiff, Jason A. White, as a Police Officer I in the City of Athens Police Department (“Athens Police Department,” or “the Department”).

12. In January of 2005, Plaintiff was promoted to Police Officer II. His duties included service as a Field Training Officer and a relief supervisor.

13. Plaintiff was promoted to Sergeant in June of 2005.

14. As a Sergeant, Plaintiff supervised 10 officers, 3 dispatchers, and 19 reserve officers. Plaintiff also co-supervised the Department’s Honor Guard.

15. In 2006, Plaintiff was selected by the Limestone County Fraternal Order of Police as “Limestone County Officer of the Year.”

16. In October of 2006, Plaintiff received an award for “Outstanding Leadership” from the Department’s Reserve Unit.

17. In July of 2007, Plaintiff was transferred to the Department’s General Investigations division as a Detective Sergeant.

18. During his time in General Investigations, Plaintiff served as the Lead Investigator in more than 1,500 individual cases.

19. Plaintiff’s assignment as an investigator also put Plaintiff in a position to learn many unsavory secrets of both the Athens Police Department and its employees.

B. Harrison Corruption Scandal

20. It was widely reported in the summer of 2009 that Defendant Tracy Harrison, who was then a Captain in the Athens Police Department, had covered up a DUI arrest made by the Department.

21. After receiving a phone call from a DUI arrestee’s attorney, Defendant Harrison deleted Police Department records, logs, and notices to the State of the DUI arrest, including what is referred to as an “AST60 mail log.”

22. In order to stop the eventual prosecution of the DUI, Defendant Harrison, accompanied by then-Lt. Pressnell, used a police vehicle to pull over an on-duty postal worker driving a U.S. Mail vehicle.

23. After stopping the mail truck, Defendant Harrison intercepted, retrieved, and destroyed important documentation about the DUI arrest before it arrived at the

Alabama Department of Public Safety.

24. Defendant Harrison then requested that Officer Jason Threet not swear to the arrest.

25. Thereafter, Jason Threet was the next officer promoted to Sergeant.

26. A complaint was made to the Office of the Attorney General about the events surrounding Defendant Harrison’s cover-up of the DUI arrest.

27. The Office of the Attorney General of Alabama launched a well-publicized investigation of Captain Harrison and the Athens Police Department.

Plaintiff Engages in Protected Activity

28. Plaintiff spoke with Decatur Daily reporter Holly Hollman about the cover-up of the Harrison corruption scandal, as well as another incident involving DA

Investigator Chris Slaton, who was involved in a public fight emanating from a domestic disturbance.

29. Plaintiff was one of the sources that informed Holly Hollman of corruption within the Athens Police Department, including the cover-up of the Harrison DUI scandal.

30. In the fall of 2009, Plaintiff met with Defendant William R. Marks in Marks’ home.

31. At the time of said meeting, Defendant Marks was the Athens City Council President.

32. Defendant Marks is now the Mayor of the City of Athens.

33. During the meeting in Defendant Marks’ home, Plaintiff reported to Marks that there was extreme division within the department, and that corruption in the department was becoming a serious problem that was personal to Plaintiff.

34. During that meeting, Defendant Marks responded to Plaintiff: “I don’t feel as sorry for the person who called the AG’s Office as I do for whoever called the media. That person is looking at serious trouble.”

35. Two weeks later, Defendant Reed Wayne Harper (who was then the Department’s Police Chief), and Defendant Floyd Johnson (who was then a Police Lieutenant), called every one of the Department’s investigators into an interview, one by one, in order to determine who reported Defendant Harrison to the Alabama Attorney General’s office and to the media.

36. In 2010, Plaintiff was interrogated by Defendant Harper in Harper’s office regarding Plaintiff’s knowledge about the corruption scandal involving Captain Harrison and Plaintiff’s knowledge about, and dealings with, local reporters.

37. That interrogation was witnessed by Defendant Johnson.

38. Defendant Johnson is now the Police Chief of the Athens Police Department.

39. Defendant Harper suspected that an investigator employed by the Department had reported Harrison’s behavior to the Attorney General’s office, and asked Plaintiff whether he had knowledge of such incidents.

40. At his interrogation, Plaintiff unequivocally voiced his support for the reporting of Defendant Harrison’s actions to the Attorney General’s office.

41. A week after Plaintiff’s interrogation, Plaintiff saw Defendant Marks on the sidewalk.

42. During that encounter, Defendant Marks asked Plaintiff if things had improved any within the department.

43. Plaintiff replied to Defendant Marks that things were only getting worse, and explained to Marks that all of the investigators were being interrogated regarding the Harrison corruption scandal.

D. Plaintiff Is Retaliated Against for His Protected Activity

44. Immediately after Plaintiff’s interrogation by Defendant Harper, Plaintiff was removed from his supervisory position over the Department’s Honor Guard.

45. Plaintiff asked Defendant Chief Harper about his removal, and whether Plaintiff had performed unsatisfactorily.

46. Harper responded that Plaintiff had not performed unsatisfactorily.

47. Plaintiff personally took great pride in his position as Supervisor of the Department’s Honor Guard. Plaintiff had originally formed the Honor Guard in 2004, and having the supervisor position was a positive reflection on his overall work performance prior to Plaintiff’s unexplained removal, and his commitment to maintaining the integrity of the Department.

48. Thereafter, in January of 2011, Plaintiff was transferred from the Investigations division and was assigned as a Patrol Sergeant on the day shift.

49. The transfer out of the Department’s Investigations division was against Plaintiff’s interests in his continued career path to an investigator position.

50. Plaintiff was dissatisfied with his transfer, and asked Chief Harper again whether he had been performing unsatisfactorily.

51. Harper again responded that Plaintiff had not performed unsatisfactorily.

52. In April of 2011, Plaintiff’s ex-wife, angry from divorce proceedings and a custody dispute with Plaintiff, made an accusation that Plaintiff used his status as a police officer against her during court proceedings.

53. Plaintiff has never used any information he obtained due to his employment as a police officer for purposes of any divorce or custody proceeding, nor has any Court or governing body found otherwise.

54. When Plaintiff’s ex-wife entered the Athens Police Department to make a complaint against Plaintiff, she was not initially asked questions about the merit of her complaint against Plaintiff, but was instead asked a serious of questions about Plaintiff’s knowledge of the Harrison corruption scandal and Plaintiff’s relationship with the media.

55. In the room during the meeting with Plaintiff’s ex-wife were Defendant Lt. Trevor Harris, Defendant Chief Harper, and Defendant Captain Harrison.

56. During that meeting, Plaintiff’s ex-wife was asked a series of questions about whether Plaintiff was involved in the reporting of the Harrison corruption scandal.

57. Plaintiff’s ex-wife was also asked a series of questions about the nature of Plaintiff’s involvement with a news reporter who had reported corruption in the police department.

58. The series of questions asked of Plaintiff’s ex-wife were similar in nature and scope to the questions asked of Plaintiff by Chief Harper in 2010 regarding Plaintiff’s involvement in reporting the Harrison scandal.

59. After Plaintiff’s ex-wife came in to file a complaint against Plaintiff,

Defendants Harper, Harrison, and Harris together devised a method of retaliation against Plaintiff for his protected activity.

60. As a result of the meeting with Plaintiff’s ex-wife, Defendants created a plan to retaliate against Plaintiff under the guise of a supposed “routine” discipline.

61. In June of 2011, Plaintiff and his legal counsel learned, during a custody proceeding, that there was a pending investigation of Plaintiff at the Department.

62. Plaintiff had no prior knowledge or notice of any impending disciplinary action or investigation of him, or of any complaint filed against him.

63. Plaintiff, while accompanied by his legal counsel, approached Defendant Harper and confronted Harper about the pending investigation referenced during the prior custody proceeding.

64. Defendant Harper then, for the first time, informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff’s ex-wife had come into the office and filed a complaint.

65. Defendant Harper informed Plaintiff that the office thought little of the potential offense, and that Plaintiff had not been made aware of the allegations before because the allegations had little merit.

66. Defendant Harper informed Plaintiff’s attorney that it was quite common for spouses who are involved in divorce/custody disputes with officers to make complaints such as the kind of behavior Plaintiff had been accused of – that of running a license plate of an unknown vehicle for non law-enforcement purposes.

67. On July 28, 2011, Plaintiff was informed by an agent of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center that he, Plaintiff, was under investigation.

68. On July 29, 2011, Plaintiff contacted District Attorney Brian Jones and asked if he had broken the law.

69. Jones replied that it did not sound like Plaintiff had broken the law, and that the investigation was obviously a “witch hunt” based on Plaintiff’s knowledge of the Harrison corruption scandal.

70. In the summer of 2011, Plaintiff approached Defendant Lt. Trevor Harris in Harris’ office at the Athens Police Department and inquired about the status of a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) investigation into Plaintiff’s alleged offense.

71. Lt. Harris responded that he wanted to get Plaintiff’s side of the story, but that he, Harris, was instructed that only Defendant Harper and Defendant Marks were allowed to speak to Plaintiff regarding those matters.

72. Defendant Marks had, by that time, been elected Mayor of the City of Athens.

73. Plaintiff informed Defendant Harris that no one at the Athens Police Department had asked Plaintiff for any information at all.

74. Defendant Harris expressed surprise after Plaintiff relayed to him, Harris, that Defendant Harper earlier told Plaintiff that he thought little of the allegations against Plaintiff.

75. Plaintiff told Harris, “You know exactly what this is about,” implying that the actions being taken against him were in retaliation for Plaintiff’s involvement in the Captain Harris corruption scandal.

76. Defendant Harris understood Plaintiff’s implication, and Defendant Harris responded sharply: “What happened with [Defendant] Tracy [Harrison] two years ago should have been kept confidential. It was an internal matter. We will make sure that your matter will be kept confidential.”

77. In early 2012, Plaintiff spoke with Defendant Chief Johnson about the NCIC complaint against Plaintiff.

78. At the time, Defendant Johnson was the Interim Chief of the Department.

79. During that conversation, Plaintiff told Defendant Johnson, “I think I know who started this whole thing,” and Plaintiff pointed to Captain Harrison’s office.

80. Interim Chief Johnson nodded his head yes, intending to confirm Plaintiff’s suspicion that Defendant and former Police Captain Harrison had been a part of initiating the complaint against, and investigation of, Plaintiff.

81. On April 11, 2012, almost a year after any investigation of Plaintiff was originally opened, ACJIC agent Lynn Shobe interviewed Plaintiff.

82. During that conversation, Lynn Shobe commented that Plaintiff’s case had “just fallen out of the sky onto his desk,” implying that he did not know the reasons for the resurrection of the investigation of Plaintiff.

83. Agent Shobe predicted that Plaintiff would probably receive only sanctions and some re-training, as Shobe explained was typical in similar situations.

84. Defendant Chief Johnson chose to ratify the ACJIC recommendation to suspend Plaintiff’s privilege from the NCIC system while planning to recommend Plaintiff’s termination for temporarily not having access to the NCIC system.

85. Plaintiff’s employment was terminated effective May 1, 2012.

86. Plaintiff’s notice of termination, as delivered, was signed and approved by Defendant Marks.

87. Plaintiff’s termination was in retaliation for his protected activity.

88. The reason given for Plaintiff’s investigation and eventual termination was that he did not have access to the NCIC system and therefore could not perform the duties of a police officer.

89. While Plaintiff was investigated internally for running a tag for non-law enforcement purposes, other officers, including Defendant Harper and the Department’s employee Lt. Pressnell, were never investigated or terminated despite widespread knowledge that other officers have engaged in actions identical to Plaintiff’s alleged actions without any adverse employment action.

90. Lt. Pressnell and Defendant Harper did not engage in the same protected activity as Plaintiff, who by contrast, was investigated, disciplined, and terminated for the same alleged offense.

91. While Plaintiff was terminated, Defendant City of Athens Police issued disciplines short of termination for far more egregious offenses than the behavior of which Plaintiff was accused.

92. Defendant City did not terminate officers who were found to have had sex with prostitutes being held in custody.

93. Defendant City did not terminate Defendant Harris and Defendant Harrison when they were found to have illegally entered into an agreement with an arrestee and, as part of that agreement, they released the arrestee without contacting appropriate prosecutors.

94. Defendant City did not terminate Lt. Pressnell, instead suspending him, after Pressnell was found to have had sexual relations with a prostitute while he was on duty.

95. Defendant City did not terminate Sgt. Greg Lott after Lott was found to have been doubling hours worked on his time sheet.

96. Defendant City did not take any corrective action against Lt. Pressnell when Pressnell “ran” a tag as a favor for his wife that was not for law enforcement purposes – the same offense for which Plaintiff was allegedly terminated.

97. Furthermore, Defendant City did not take any corrective action against Defendant Harper after Harper repeatedly “ran” car tags at the behest of a friend in town.

98. Defendant Harris, Defendant Harrison, Defendant Johnson, Defendant Harper, and Defendant Marks all had knowledge that both Pressnell and Harper had run car tags for non law-enforcement purposes, but only Plaintiff was investigated, disciplined, and terminated for allegedly doing the same.

99. Defendant City’s pattern and practice of selectively enforcing its own rules and regulations systematically allows for the Athens Police Department to terminate employees based on improper considerations, such as whether that employee has engaged in protected activity that is critical of the Department or its supervisors.

COUNT ONE

42 U.S.C. § 1983

FIRST AMENDMENT RETALIATION

(ALL DEFENDANTS)

100. Plaintiff adopts and re-alleges each and every allegation contained in this Complaint as if set out anew herein.

101. The above-described actions of Defendants were taken under the color of state law.

102. In taking the above-described actions, the Defendants intentionally and willfully retaliated against the Plaintiff for his speech that was protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

103. The Plaintiff’s Constitutionally protected speech was in regard to a matter of public concern: corruption within the Athens Police Department.

104. Said speech played a substantial part in the defendants’ decision to discharge the Plaintiff.

105. The actions of Defendants constituted a conspiracy to retaliate against Plaintiff for his protected activity.

106. Defendant Harris, Defendant Harrison, Defendant Johnson, Defendant Harper, and Defendant Marks all consciously contributed to and engaged in the conspiracy to terminate Plaintiff in retaliation for his protected activity.

107. Defendant Tracy Harrison acted under color of state law when he encouraged and participated in Defendants’ retaliation against Plaintiff for his protected activity.

108. Defendant City of Athens acted through its chief decision makers,

Defendant Mayor Marks and Defendant Police Chief Johnson, when it terminated Plaintiff in retaliation for protected activity.

109. Defendant City of Athens has a pattern and practice of not equally investigating allegations of misconduct, or evenly enforcing the policies of the Athens Police Department, in order to allow selective enforcement of said policies.

110. Defendant City’s selective enforcement of its employment policies and procedures, including the investigation, discipline, and termination of employees who run tags for non-law enforcement reasons, allowed Defendant City to terminate Plaintiff in retaliation for his protected activity under its policies and procedures.

111. As a proximate consequence of the Defendants’ violation of the First Amendment, the Plaintiff has suffered and will continue to suffer damage to his professional life, reputation, and future career opportunities, future pecuniary losses, emotional pain, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and non-pecuniary damages.

WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, the Plaintiff respectfully requests this Court to award the following relief:

a. Placement in the position(s) in which he would have worked absent the Defendants’ retaliatory treatment; or, in lieu thereof, front pay;

b. Back pay;

c. Injunctive relief;

d. Pre-judgment interest;

e. Attorney’s fees;

f. Costs;

g. Compensatory damages for loss of wages, loss of benefits, mental anguish, embarrassment, emotional distress;

h. Punitive damages against the individual Defendants to deter such conduct in the future; and

i. Such other legal or equitable relief to which Plaintiff may be entitled, including prospective injunctive relief.

PLAINTIFF DEMANDS TRIAL BY STRUCK JURY ON ALL CLAIMS SO TRIABLE.

Respectfully submitted,

/s John D. Saxon

John D. Saxon

Alabama State Bar No. ASB-3258-O71J

John D. Saxon, Jr.

Alabama State Bar No. ASB-5374-H63S

Attorneys for Plaintiff